How We Can All Come Together

Here is a snapshot of the comments section for two Facebook posts by popular new outlets on the recent decision by Donald Trump to have V.P. Mike Pence lead the transition team. One of these comes from the post by CNN, the other from Fox News. I'm pretty sure you can guess which is which:

And that's just talk. Since Donald Trump's victory, there have been acts of violence against women and minorities, and against some supporters of Donald Trump. There has been a call for California to secede from the union, and for "Faithless delegates" to elect Clinton instead of Trump. And this is after Trump himself hinted that he might not accept the election results if he were declared the loser. In light of these post-election circumstances, NBC Nightline News posed the question, "how can we all come together?"

The Great Divide

Many have cited this election as the most divisive in our history. It also seems to me to be one of the most divided, specifically in terms of the yawning gap in perspectives between both sides. As you can see by the snapshots above, it appears that each half is living it's own narrative, in complete disbelief or ignorance of the other's.

We may wish to place the blame on those that actively create and reinforce these narratives. Of course there are the spin masters themselves, the politicians. But there seems to be a general consensus that the media, and in particular news outlets, plays a hand. What used to be anathema in journalism is now the trademark of MSNBC and Fox News: opinionated news playing to a specific narrative, a captive audience.

"Captive" is a key word here. If attention wandered freely from news source to news source, it would be much less common for audiences to adopt such one-sided viewpoints. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of humans to experience confirmation bias, which causes us to seek out and embrace information which agrees with our own point of view, to the exclusion of others. There is a certain thrill to watching news that reinforces once again what you already "know", enticing you to come back for more. Over time, the information peddlers have become experts in wrapping up your daily dose in the flavor you like best.

Freakonomics just published a podcast called Trust Me that presents the concept of "bridging social capital", which is the value inherent in knowing and interacting with people from different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds than yourself. Professor Robert Putnam says in the podcast that bridging social capital is "really important especially in a modern, diverse democracy like ours. And therefore, what worries me most about trends in America is the decline in bridging social capital." Very interestingly, he points to the birth of television as the point when our bridging social capital began to decline, saying it “means less of virtually every form of civic participation and social involvement.”

The Internet Bubble

We are now in a new age of media interaction. One that would, one imagines, break down that divide and renew those ties. Geography can't constrain us, TV has given way to ubiquitous online social interaction, and it is possible to find people and ideas of every possible kind online.

What hasn't changed is how we think. Given the choice, we again choose the same news sources that confirm our opinions, to surround ourselves with people like us, and with information that agrees with us. The internet now gives another tool to aggravate the problem, which is to choose who we "friend", and whose opinions we see, based on whether or not they are like us. It is looking like one more way to burn the bridges of social capital.

Our "public squares" of interaction online — Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube — all have an incentive to be "sticky", to keep us online and engaged as much as possible. It's no surprise, then, that there are already rumblings that they are creating a "filter bubble" for us to live in our own cocoons of reality. As artificial intelligence comes into its own, it is being used as a way to predict with increasing success what it is we "want" to see, rather than what we need to see.

Enemies, with Benefits

There have been calls to ask Facebook and other internet properties to change their algorithm in order to provide deliberate cracks in the echo chamber. Given that this works in direct contrast to their own business model, there are no signs that things will change for the better. Some people are encouraging users to take responsibility on their own behalf for limiting these filter effects. But this approach will only work for those that are aware of the problem and actively care.

I am currently working on a project that I think might provide one place online where people MUST encounter those with different opinions than their own. The goal of the project is to create one canonical place online for debates of all kinds, including (especially) politics and policy discussions.

The trick here is that argumentation in all forms, from "high brow" Cambridge-style debates to online "flame wars", involve a high level of emotion and engagement. When arguing, people are inherently motivated to encounter people with a different opinion than their own. It may not be for the friendliest of reasons, but the end result involves some level of exposure to something outside their normal bubble.

The quality of the encounter can vary dramatically, and accordingly so can the benefits gained by the participants. If the discussion involves mostly mud-slinging by misinformed people, passions may run high, but there might be little of actual value learned. Conversely, well-informed, carefully-stated arguments might be rich with new truths, but so dry as to lose the attention of the average viewer. This new approach that I am proposing will hopefully bring the best of both worlds: the opportunity to debate, argue, yell and scream, but which will result in relevant, succinct, well-vetted and contextualized arguments, on all sides of the debate.

For more information about this idea, and to follow it as it grows to fruition, check out my first article on the subject: Where Is the Wikipedia for Debates? My hope is that by the next election cycle, we will finally have the means to understand not only what we are voting for, but what they are as well.

Founder of The Canonical Debate Lab

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